Passport retention by UAE companies less common
ABU DHABI // Employers are required by law to allow workers who live in labour camps to keep their passports.
In the past, many workers complained that their employers withheld their passports, although the practice appears to be dying out.
An annual study of labourers living in the Saadiyat Accommodation Village by PwC, an audit company commissioned by TDIC, showed that in the first six months of last year contractors provided all workers interviewed with the option for their passports to be safely held by their employers with the worker’s consent.
In the second half of the year some subcontractors retained passports, despite being asked to release them.
The National spoke to residents at several camps in Abu Dhabi and most said they were allowed to keep their passports, or could opt to give them to their employer for safe keeping.
“My company keeps the passport with my consent,” said Pakistani worker Munzir Mohammed, who lives at the Icad accommodation in Mussaffah.
“In fact, my company asked me to take my passport. The company agreed to release the passport whenever we required, even if we are changing our jobs as well.”
He said, in general, companies were far more flexible these days.
“If we keep our passport at our accommodation, where plenty of people visit, we might lose it. That’s why we prefer to keep it with the company.”
According to a decree by the Ministry of Interior in 2002: “It will be considered as an illegal action to retain the passport except by governmental parties … in case of retaining passports, there will be a suitable punishment by the law.”
The UAE is also a signatory to the International Labour Organisation’s Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour. The ILO considers withholding passports to be a breach of that convention.
“My passport is with the company but we get it whenever we need it. It’s safe there,” said Indian carpenter Sunil Kumar, who lives in Al Mafraq Workers City 2.
“If there is any emergency at home, we get off days. Even if we request them immediately the company sends our documents with the company car, which drops it at the airport.”
Nepalese construction worker Ram Bahadur, who lives Al Mafraq Workers City 1, is also happy with the set-up.
“Now a company can’t hold the passport. They have to give it to the worker. It could be a problem if we lost it at the camp,” Mr Bahadur said.
He said if a worker wanted to cancel his visa and work somewhere else, they were able to send a request letter to the company and it would arrange cancellation.
One construction and contracting company in Abu Dhabi said: “Now we don’t hold the passports of workers. If they want to keep it with us, they can, otherwise we give it to them. By law, it’s their property, so we don’t force them. We give them a labour card, too.”
The practice has not disappeared completely, however, and some workers still complain of their passports being held by their employer.
“The company held my passport and gave me the labour card,” said Bangladeshi Raju Mian, a construction worker who has lived in the Icad camp for three years and earns Dh700 a month.
When he asked the company to return his passport, it said: “You don’t need it since you have the labour card as your identity proof.”
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The UAE has signed up to nine International Labour Organisation conventions to protect workers’ rights, and in 2006 was the first country in the region to enact a comprehensive anti-human trafficking law. These conventions spurred the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) to improve the quality of life for 7,000 employees living in workers villages on Saadiyat island. While most workers say they are satisfied with life in Saadiyat Accommodation Village, many have voiced concern about the poor taste of the food. Despite criticism, the purchasing power of the dirham in Southest Asian countries remains a major factor in attracting expatriates to the UAE. Similarly, concerns over passport retention have decreased as the practice has become less common in the UAE.